If I recall the start of the ’80s correctly, the coolest kids at school were either wearing kappa jackets and trim trabbs, or Jam shoes and green parkas. The latter were fans of the 2 Tone Records label, set up in Coventry by Jerry Dammers in 1979 and boasting singles by Madness, The Selecter, Bad Manners, The Beat, The Bodysnatchers and most importantly, The Specials. I sadly failed to fall into either camp as I was (also sadly) listening to Abba. This meant I also missed out on the local scene in Liverpool of The Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and The Pale Fountains. The word “Loser” springs to mind.
2 Tone remains one of the most iconic labels in British music history, specialising in its own brand of Ska, recognisable by its black and white label featuring the character of Walt Jabsco, and suggesting by its name alone a label that supported multi-national communities in a time when racial harmony was by no means a given. Dammers offered bands a one-single deal, but only The Specials and The Bodysnatchers remained loyal and stayed the course beyond that initial release.
In 1981, Dance Craze was unleashed at cinemas. Director Joe Massot, who had previously made the George Harrison scored Wonderwall film in 1968, took to the music venues of Britain (and the U.S. in the case of The Beat) to document the Ska phenomenon. Apart from some sporadic 1960s pathe’ newsreel clips of previous youth movements, the film consists entirely of live footage, filmed onstage with the bands that made up the original 2 Tone roster.
In re-releasing this long overdue Blu-Ray/DVD package, limited cinema release and de-luxe soundtrack album, British Film Institute (BFI) have perhaps released the most important archive piece this year, and it’s only March. As Johnny Mains outlines in the accompanying booklet, the music is as important now as it was then despite the distance of 42 long years; “We are again a country that feels like it could implode at any second. At the time of writing, we are witnessing strikes by nurses, paramedics, railway workers, Royal Mail staff, teachers and bus drivers.” Indeed, the parallels between the Thatcher era and the new queue-up to have a go PMs of the current Tory Government are presenting the people of Britain with very similar challenges. Fans of the likes of Sleaford Mods, IDLES and Yard Act will see direct links with the 2 Tone forefathers that laid their path in the dark days of the ’80s.
But what of the film itself? Even watching at home, it makes you feel like you’ve had the best night out ever. The 4k restoration with Dolby Atmos sound has kicked new life into the release that until now only existed in the only known 70mm print, owned by the film’s cinematographer, Joe Dunton. BFI have done a miraculous job and the look and sound of the film is completely breathtaking.
In a format that shouldn’t work, with the bands’ performances being mixed up rather than in a series of individual sets, it is difficult to become bored. Opening as it should with The Specials’ “Nite Club,” live from Rotters Club in Liverpool, we are thrust into a world of frantic po-going and direct communication between the band and their audiences. The Specials’ sequences see Terry Hall making direct confrontation with his fans, in the case of “Too Much Too Young,” with his crotch in the faces of the front row, submerged in a sea of sweaty black and white tee shirts.
Madness provides excitement in a different way, like a musical Keystone Cops, they own the stage, maniacally hopping and dashing in a constant flurry, proving that it is possible to merge humour with hard-edged Camden Town Ska. Early Madness were as vital to the music scene as The Specials were and, with their pop-sensibility, brought mass appeal to the movement with their endless chart hits and comic-strip music videos. Here Suggs still looks like a hard-as-nails Borstal boy, with wingman Chas Smash fronting their own Nutty Boys version of the Bash Street Kids.
Bad Manners, fronted by the hefty figure of Buster Bloodvessel, all sweat and wagging tongue, were also seen as a comedy outfit by and large, but equally embraced the Ska scene with songs like “Ne-Ne-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nu-Nu,” and “Woolly Bully,” both included here from London’s Electric Ballroom. They have by far the most attractive crowd, lining the front row with freshly shaven skinheads and Fred Perry tops. Buster’s energy is incredible, and the crowd is literally crawling over each other to get near his mighty presence.
The Bodysnatchers, despite remaining with the label, are perhaps the lesser known of the bands in the film, but, with tracks like “007 (Shanty Town)” and “Let’s Do Rocksteady,” are no less important. With an all-girl line-up, relatively rare for the time, they are a powerhouse of a band and rule their stage every bit as much as their label-mates.
The Selecter, fronted by (Dame) Pauline Black and her cool as hell co-lead Arthur (Gaps) Hendrickson (That suit!), perhaps sum up the feeling of the time best in their intro to “Three Minute Hero,” as Black asks the audience “Right, who here gets up at 7.00 in the morning? Do You work in Factories?,” and launches into a song about those rebels who clock in 3 minutes late. The sentiment can also be heard in The Specials’ “Rat Race” single, sadly not included here. A brilliant version of their signature “On My Radio,” has never sounded better.
The Beat completes the picture with footage of them onstage at Emerald City, New Jersey, proving that the appeal of the British Ska movement reached far beyond the Midlands. The band never seemed to have the same appeal as The Specials and Madness, but from their own Go-Feet Label, they produced some of the finest era-defining anti – Government pop of the time. “Stand Down Margaret” withstanding, they were also responsible for the still brilliant “Mirror in the Bathroom,” showcased here, alongside “Ranking Full Stop” and “Rough Rider.” Ranking Roger proves himself here to be a master of toasting and compliments Dave Wakeling’s vocals with class.
A post-credit re-treading of The Specials’ “Nite Klub,” this time from Leicester’s De Montford Hall, treats us to a classic stage invasion with the band miraculously holding it together amongst a riot of marauding fans – genius right there.
Worth the purchase price alone is the inclusion of Rudies Come Back, a 1980 BBC documentary from the Arena series which follows NME’s Adrian Thrills as he takes the train from London to Coventry to explore the 2 Tone phenomenon. Stopping off to visit The Selector recording “Three Minute Hero” in the studio with an era-defining interview, Thrills then finds himself in 2 Tone’s office. A bedroom (with a bed!) in an upstairs room of an unassuming house, this is DIY music management at its most extreme. The toothless Jerry Dammers provides a tour of the room, revealing all of the label’s paperwork that amounts to a handful of crumpled paperwork in the top drawer of an old desk.
Terry Hall has a fragility that is the opposite of the enigmatic front-man we see in the live clips, whereas Neville Staples is as enigmatic in real life, regaling AdrianThrills with stories of life in The Specials. This is priceless footage of a band who were creating history from the most humble backdrop, dancing around a dansette in a bedroom, laughing and in love with the music that inspired them to write their now legendary output. Live footage from Tiffany’s Nightclub in Coventry gifts us with a version of “Concrete Jungle” that is superior to the versions in both Dance Craze and on their self-titled debut album. Bizarre filmed sequences illustrate the lyrics of their songs, which add to the already quirky nature of this 30-minute treasure.
Essential is perhaps a word that should not be over-used, but anyone interested in this most exceptional of British musical movements, or those in need of quality nostalgia really should invest. It’s the best night in you can have.
Director: Joe Massot
Starring: Bad Manners, The Beat, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, The Selecter, The Specials
Production Company: Chrysalis Records
Distributed by: BFI
Release Date: March 27, 2023
Run Time: 91 minutes